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Volume 11, No. 8—Novemberr 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Why the West?
The Unsettled Question of Europe's Ascendancy
by Gale Stokes

NOT MANY HISTORIANS WOULD SUBTITLE A BOOK "THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES." AND INDEED, Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, the ambitious book with that subtitle, is not a historian but an evolutionary biologist. Nonetheless, in the past few years, numerous historians have joined Diamond in publishing studies with ambitions on a macrohistorical scale. Many of these works focus on variants of the question that first inspired Diamond to write his extremely popular book. While Diamond was doing fieldwork in New Guinea, a native informant asked him, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Diamond knows that from a genetic point of view humans have been essentially equivalent for tens of thousands of years, and his fieldwork in New Guinea convinced him that the peoples there were on average more intelligent than Westerners. Thus the question seemed to him both puzzling and worth pursuing. And so it has seemed to many others.

The issue that has occupied macrohistorians over the past generation can be stated quite succinctly: Why Europe? Why did a relatively small and backward periphery on the western fringes of the Eurasian continent burst onto the world scene in the sixteenth century and by the nineteenth century become a dominant force in almost all corners of the earth? Until recently, two responses have dominated. The first is that something unique in the European past lay behind its eventual economic development and power. This something unique is often seen as a universal good—such as reason, freedom, or individualism—that first developed in Europe but ultimately relates, or should relate, to all human beings. The best-known recent study in this school is The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (Norton) by the now emeritus Harvard historian David S. Landes.

The second response is that there was nothing particularly special about Europe until at least 1500, and probably not until 1800. In this view, Europe's rise to dominance was due not to any exceptional qualities but to its ability to seize vast amounts of gold and silver in the New World and create other forms of wealth through colonial trade. Proponents of this idea tend to see the last thousand years as dominated primarily by the cultures and economies of Asia, especially China, with a relatively brief and probably transient burst of European power in the last quarter of the millennium. The most successful synthetic study in this vein is ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (California) by the world-system theorist Andre Gunder Frank.

Both of these approaches tend to be polemical. For example, Landes calls criticism of scholarship that emphasizes European uniqueness "simply anti-intellectual; also contrary to fact." Frank believes his analysis "pulls the historical rug out from under the anti-historical/scientific—really ideological—Euro-centrism of Marx, Weber, Toynbee, Polanyi, Braudel, Wallerstein, and most other contemporary social theorists." Recently, however, a less polarized way of tackling macrohistorical issues has begun to emerge: the world-historical approach. World historians tend to see the past thousand years, and maybe even a longer period, as a series of interactions and encounters in which humanity as a whole participated in a vast adventure of development, the sources of which were varied and the impact of which was worldwide. These historians tend to focus on encounters and comparisons rather than on hegemony and dominance.

One touches on these issues with considerable trepidation. The low esteem in which professional historians have held such figures as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee grows in part out of the conviction that their work was not properly grounded in detailed archival research. But macrohistory does not have to sacrifice rigor. William H. McNeill, one of the two universally admired macrohistorians—the other being Fernand Braudel—points out that the fundamental issue is not the scope of an inquiry but the skill with which a historian chooses questions and the integrity he or she brings to the task.

DAVID S. LANDES'S rich study unapologetically credits the world's economic and social progress over the last thousand years to "Western civilization and its dissemination." The reason, he believes, is that Europeans invented systematic economic development. Landes adds that three unique aspects of European culture were crucial ingredients in Europe's economic growth. First, science developed as an autonomous method of intellectual inquiry that successfully disengaged itself from the social constraints of organized religion and from the political constraints of centralized authority. Though Europe lacked a political center, its scholars benefited from the use of a single vehicle of communication: Latin. This common tongue facilitated an adversarial discourse in which new ideas about the physical world could be tested, demonstrated, and then accepted across the continent and eventually across the world.

Second, Landes espouses a generalized form of Max Weber's thesis that the values of work, initiative, and investment made the difference for Europe. Despite his emphasis on science, Landes does not stress the notion of rationality as such. In his view, "what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, [and] tenacity." The only route to economic success for individuals or states is working hard, spending less than you earn, and investing the rest in productive capacity. This is his fundamental explanation of the problem posed by his book's subtitle: "Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor." For historical reasons—an emphasis on private property, an experience of political pluralism, a temperate climate, an urban style—Europeans have, on balance, followed those practices and therefore have prospered.

Third, and perhaps most important, Europeans were learners. They "learned rather greedily," as Joel Mokyr put it in a review of Landes's book. Even if Europeans possessed indigenous technologies that gave them an advantage (spectacles, for example), as Landes believes they did, their most vital asset was the ability to assimilate knowledge from around the world and put it to use—as in borrowing the concept of zero and rediscovering Aristotle's Logic from the Arabs and taking paper and gunpowder from the Chinese via the Muslim world. Landes argues that a systematic resistance to learning from other cultures had become the greatest handicap of the Chinese by the eighteenth century and remains the greatest handicap of Arab countries today.

Although his analysis of European expansion is almost nonexistent, Landes does not argue that Europeans were beneficent bearers of civilization to a benighted world. Rather, he relies on his own commonsense law: "When one group is strong enough to push another around and stands to gain by it, it will do so." In contrast to the new school of world historians, Landes believes that specific cultural values enabled technological advances that in turn made some Europeans strong enough to dominate people in other parts of the world. Europeans therefore proceeded to do so with great viciousness and cruelty. By focusing on their victimization in this process, Landes holds, some postcolonial states have wasted energy that could have been put into productive work and investment. If one could sum up Landes's advice to these states in one sentence, it might be "Stop whining and get to work." This is particularly important, indeed hopeful, advice, he would argue, because success is not permanent. Advantages are not fixed, gains from trade are unequal, and different societies react differently to market signals. Therefore, not only is there hope for undeveloped countries, but developed countries have little cause to be complacent, because the current situation "will press hard" on them.

Despite this hint of possible European decline, the thrust of studies like Landes's is to identify those distinctive features of European civilization that lie behind Europe's rise to power and the creation of modernity more generally. Other historians have placed a greater emphasis on such features as liberty, individualism, and Christianity. In a review essay, the art historian Craig Clunas listed some of the less well known linkages that have been proposed between Western culture and modernity, including the propensities to think quantitatively, enjoy pornography, and consume sugar. All such proposals assume the fundamental aptness of the question: What elements of European civilization led to European success? It is a short leap from this assumption to outright triumphalism. The paradigmatic book of this school is, of course, The End of History and the Last Man, in which Francis Fukuyama argues that after the collapse of Nazism and communism in the twentieth century, the only remaining model for human organization in the industrial and communications ages is a combination of market economics and limited, pluralist, democratic government.

THIS KIND of confidence provokes heavy fire, as well as resentment and anger. Critics argue that the undoubted ascendancy of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was substantially less inevitable than most have assumed and was certainly not due to any inherent European superiorities. Instead of growing out of unique European experiences, Western domination was almost accidental; it has been brief, and it will be short-lived. In The Colonizer's Model of the World, the late James M. Blaut wrote that "the myth of the European miracle is the doctrine that the rise of Europe resulted, essentially, from historical forces generated within Europe itself." Blaut assembles a multitude of data undermining the demographic, climatic, and geographic arguments for European uniqueness. He makes a strong case that European success was due primarily to Europe's good fortune in being well placed geographically to exploit the gold and silver of the Americas and the colonial trade that these resources made possible.

While Blaut presents the most systematic critique of Eurocentrism, Andre Gunder Frank offers the most thorough alternative explanation of the course of modern history. Frank does not give an inch to Europe, which in his view made little or no contribution to its nineteenth-century hegemony. Early-modern Europe was not more advanced "in any way than other regions of the world." "Europeans did not do anything—let alone modernize—by themselves." "The Europeans did not in any sense 'create' the world economic system itself nor develop world 'capitalism.'" "The Europeans had no exceptional, let alone superior, ethnic, rational, organizational, or spirit-of-capitalist advantages to offer, diffuse, or do anything else in Asia."

Instead, Frank argues, European successes were the result of a world economic system that has been in operation since at least 1400 and probably long before that time. As a structuralist, Frank believes that local and regional events take place within the system of trade linkages through which products and money are exchanged on a worldwide basis, or at least on a very large intercontinental scale. During most of the last thousand years, that system was centered on Asia, especially China, which under the Song dynasty of the tenth to thirteenth centuries experienced remarkable economic growth. Janet Abu-Lughod has argued that when this system began to decline, as part of a worldwide population decline in the fourteenth century, the stage was set for the emergence of the truly worldwide system of the post-Columbus era. Frank does not agree. Believing that the world system operates in the very long-term cycles of rise and decline identified by Nikolai Kondratieff early in the twentieth century, Frank argues that Asia began an "A" phase of economic upturn around 1400 that continued into the seventeenth century. Only when that cycle went into its "B" phase, or decline, did a rising cycle of European development pass it in about 1815. In other words, 1500 is not the dramatic milestone of a new era for Frank, as it is for many other historians, but rather a moment when a world system was restructured, or "inflected," because Europeans fortuitously stumbled onto the Western Hemisphere.

Examining the world economy of the sixteenth century, Frank identifies three areas of surplus production (India, China, and Southeast Asia) and four deficit regions (the Americas, Japan, Africa, and Europe). To obtain some of the surpluses of the former areas, the Americas and Japan exported specie, and Africa exported slaves. Europe, with nothing of great value to sell, achieved success by managing these exports. Frank particularly emphasizes the importance of silver. Because the price of silver was approximately twice as high in China as it was in Europe or the New World and because Europe had few products that the sophisticated Asian traders wanted, about one-quarter to one-third (and perhaps more) of the silver produced in the New World ended up in Asia, especially in China. This, and nothing more, Frank argues, is what provided the basis for European development. As he puts it, "The Europeans bought themselves a seat, and then even a whole railway car, on the Asian train."

As this formulation suggests, Frank tends even more toward overkill than Landes. According to Frank, Asians were superior or at least equal to Europeans in the fields of guns, ships, printing, textiles, metallurgy, and transport. He further believes that state institutions had little or no importance in shaping the world economic system. Even the Crusades were nothing more than Europe's effort "to plug its marginal economy more effectively into the new Afro-Eurasian dynamic." And, unlike Landes, Frank has very little room for people. For him, structure is all. For example: "It was this Kondratieff 'B' phase that generated the industrial revolution (as well as the American and French political revolutions)." Frank calls this approach "humanocentric." That is, rather than taking one relatively small group of human beings as his focus, he tries to comprehend humanity as a whole. There is merit in this idea. After all, in the long run of human experience, worldwide industrialization has taken but an instant. However, Frank's is a profoundly antihumanistic approach: Cycles occur and structures inflect, but human agents do not really exist.

ONE OF THE few individuals who is mentioned by almost every author is Zheng He, a eunuch at the Chinese court who initiated a series of ocean voyages early in the fifteenth century. His initial treasure fleet consisted of 317 ships, the largest of which were four hundred feet long (compared with the eighty-five feet of Columbus's Santa Maria). The fleet, which carried twenty-seven thousand crewmen, was the biggest assembled for a single voyage until the twentieth century. The Chinese made seven major trips to the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as Madagascar. But because of internal political conflicts, the emperor eventually ordered the fleets destroyed and went so far as to ban oceangoing voyages and the building of ships with more than two masts.

Authors who begin from a European perspective almost uniformly stress Zheng He's significance. They adopt the same general explanation of why Europeans rather than Asians ultimately came to dominate the seas: China was a centralized empire and Europe was not. Jared Diamond's version of this conventional wisdom has a geographic twist. China, he notes, is a compact landmass with a relatively limited coastline, whereas Europe consists of numerous peninsulas and major islands with extensive coastlines. Therefore, when the Han of northwest China developed agriculture around 7500 b.c.e., they were able, over two or three thousand years, to spread their culture to the southeast, eliminate hundreds of indigenous peoples, and create a centralized state in a way not possible in Europe. If the central regime in China then wished to prohibit the construction of ships with more than two masts, as it did by 1500, it could do so. Europe, by contrast, consisted of competing kingdoms and proto-states in which no such blanket prohibition could be sustained.

Historians have also pointed to large-scale cultural differences, as well as geographical and political factors, in explaining why the Europeans, not the Chinese, came to dominance by the nineteenth century. Typical arguments are that Confucianism, with its ethic of harmonious living, contrasts with aggressive, monotheistic Christianity; that the Chinese sense of being at the center of the world contrasts with, for example, the Portuguese people's realization that they were not even at the center of Europe, let alone the world, and therefore were in competition with other Europeans; and that the social position of the merchant in China was inferior to that of the merchant in the West, so property rights were poorly protected. These cultural differences are neatly summed up in the contrasting ways the emperor of China and the king of Portugal styled themselves. The Chinese emperor was the "Son of Heaven," around whom the rest of the world revolved, whereas Manuel I, king of Portugal from 1495 to 1521, styled himself the "Lord of Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce of Ethiopia, Asia, Persia, and India." Landes makes such an argument with typical fervor, repeating the refrain of a changeless China. After the Ming prohibited oceangoing voyages, he writes, "the Celestial Empire purred along for hundreds of years more, impervious and imperturbable."

Blaut offers a sharp critique of deterministic arguments for China's passivity. Among other things, he points out that if length of coastline and pluralist politics are criteria for development, then South and Southeast Asia, not the European states, should have been the innovators, since the Indian coastline is long in relation to its landmass and the islands of what is today Indonesia provided both an extended coastline and political diversity.

The most powerful reply to the argument that Chinese advances stopped with Zheng He comes from Frank. Basing his analysis on a wide reading of the latest scholarship, Frank convincingly argues a case that has been familiar to sinologists for some time but not to Europeanists. Rather than remaining static in the late Ming and early Qing, the Chinese economy showed considerable vigor, as did the Asian trading system of which it was a part. Frank bases his argument on the fact that the Chinese population grew substantially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which implies a concomitant economic growth. He also disputes the notion that the Chinese approach to exploration and discovery was any less rational than the European approach. If the Chinese did not launch vast fleets of ships, he concludes, it may have been for perfectly good reasons. As forests close to rivers were cut down and accessible lumber supplies dwindled, it became less and less economical to build large ships. Chinese merchants responded by building smaller ones and traveling shorter distances with them. Weather patterns made it profitable for them to travel to accessible entrepôts such as the Malaysian port of Melaka, where they could trade with their counterparts coming from the Indian Ocean. In this way, merchants could avoid lengthy, expensive round-trips to South Asia.

Frank does not have a lot to say about culture, but here too China exhibited a number of characteristics that seem similar to those of precapitalist Europe. Chinese culture was not unreceptive to the kind of entrepreneurial activity that together with technological developments would help bring about the industrial revolution in the West. During the Ming dynasty, authors wrote theoretical treatises about the market and about proper modes of behavior that call to mind the Calvinist virtues of diligence, stewardship, and accountability. In 1506, Qiu Jun defined a market and argued that marketing should be left to the merchants without state interference (except in the case of food supplies). In 1635, Li Jinde advised merchants to be diligent, make sure expenses do not exceed income, go to bed early and rise early, avoid ostentation, and keep careful accounts. Both of these treatises were couched in Confucian terms, but as the historian Timothy Brook has pointed out, the last one in particular indicated that "the core philosophy of the age was being molded to accept commerce in a way that previously had not been thought possible."

As early as the fourteenth century, hemp-spinning machines powered by waterwheels came into widespread use in northern China, and a potentially automatic loom for the production of silk and ramie (a nettle plant whose fiber can be woven) was invented. And yet, despite a booming trade in cotton goods under the Ming, spinning and weaving technology was never transferred to the production of cotton. Capitalist modes of behavior never became widespread. Why not?

Of the many proposed explanations, an intriguing recent entry is Jack Goldstone's suggestion that the unavailability of female workers prevented the development of a cotton industry in China. Many scholars have suggested a link between Europeans' willingness to make use of their technological inventions and the choices they made in structuring their families, which allegedly showed a propensity for the kind of economically rational behavior suitable for capitalism. By marrying late and having fewer children, Europeans were said to have acted rationally by limiting the division of property into smallholdings; such foresighted activity supposedly did not exist in China, where early marriage and large families were the custom.

Goldstone points out that recent research into Chinese family patterns has challenged this view. Instead, he suggests that a closely related factor, differences in women's life paths, was decisive. In the West, women between puberty and marriage were typically wage earners. Considered individuals, they were available to work for a wage under the supervision of a nonfamily adult as a servant or, later, as a factory worker. The pay was meager, less than a man might earn doing the same thing, but while earning that wage they produced more than they could living at home. In contrast to European women, Chinese women were considered not individuals but members of a family. The Confucian life path of women did not take them out of the household until marriage; according to Goldstone, the system locked them into "upholding family continuity by restricting them to household life." Consequently, he argues, cheap female and child labor was not available to Chinese cotton entrepreneurs. Unlike their European counterparts, such entrepreneurs would have had to hire more expensive male labor, whose products would not have been competitive with the much cheaper household production of family-bound women. Therefore, they tended to make the economically rational choice not to build cotton mills.

IN DISCUSSING these and other issues, historians engage in conversations initiated more than a generation ago. Arguments for European uniqueness grow out of the practice of teaching Western Civilization courses at universities, which dates to at least the 1920s; the arguments of their opponents grow out of a Marxist style of criticism that became particularly salient in the 1960s. Both sides are concerned with questions related to origins and hegemony. Why did Europe break out as it did? Why didn't China (or India)? When did Europe become hegemonic in the world system of capitalism? Was China hegemonic for most of the last millennium? Questions of this sort were part and parcel of a way of thinking that identified East and West as somehow opposed. But practitioners of the new field of world history have begun to sidestep or ignore questions such as these in favor of what Kenneth Pomeranz calls "reciprocal comparisons." This approach—less polemical and less focused on origins—is on the verge of entering the mainstream of the American historical profession.

Of course, many critics of the European perspective are, or consider themselves, world historians. But I use the term here to refer to the growing group of scholars who put aside questions of hegemony and ressentiment and attempt to write truly comparative history. An ambitious, but not entirely successful, example is Victor Lieberman's effort to demonstrate that between 1450 and 1830 "localized societies in widely separated regions," such as Burma, Siam, Vietnam, France, Russia, and Japan, "coalesced into larger units—politically, culturally, commercially." That is, "sustained integrative patterns were not restricted to Europe" but were "variants of more general Eurasian patterns." The British anthropologist Jack Goody takes a much larger view, arguing that the main regions of Eurasian development appear similar because they are all variations on the same theme—the Bronze Age innovations connected with agriculture and metal industries. But the two most important works in this new genre are R. Bin Wong's China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Cornell) and Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton). The analyses in both books go well beyond Landes's and Frank's aggressive polemicizing to create sustained and substantial interpretations.

Rather than attempting to answer the questions "Why Europe?" and "Why not China?" Wong seeks to uncover where China and Europe are similar, where they differ, and what this implies for our understanding of these two worlds. He argues that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both the Chinese and the Europeans faced economic problems characteristic of societies based on agricultural production. They responded to harvest insecurities, material limitation, and demographic issues in ways that would be familiar to Adam Smith—by specialization and the division of labor, for example. The European and Chinese economies were not exactly the same, of course. In China, a large proportion of production was always rural, not urban, whereas in Europe some production that began in towns and cities migrated to the countryside in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But in general, Wong extends and elaborates the argument made by others that the preindustrial economic development of China and Europe had important similarities. Both he and Pomeranz refer to these similarities as constituting a "Smithian world." In such a world, economic growth could occur, but primarily through what the English economic historian E.L. Jones has called "extensive" strategies—that is, through an increase in inputs, such as land (expansion of the arable) or labor (population growth). This is the kind of growth Frank is talking about when he notes how China's economy kept up with its population growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But extensive growth, even when combined with improvements in technology and farming practices, does not necessarily imply a breakout to an industrial revolution. Wong does not believe one could look at China and Europe in, say, 1700 and predict what was going to happen.

What did happen, in his view, was something entirely new—the discovery of how to extract energy systematically from mineral rather than organic material. The steam engine turned coal into energy at a stupendously greater rate than ever before, thus setting off "intensive" growth based on the increased efficiency made possible by technology. Frank, because he is so wedded to his structural explanations, mentions this momentous event only in passing. Landes, while agreeing that the steam engine was important, does not give the energy transformation it wrought a central place in his analysis. Wong, on the other hand, considers it fundamental. He is correct when he states that "the world of material possibilities was dramatically altered between 1780 and 1880. No previous century witnessed such changes." This does not, however, lead him to any speculations about the intrinsic cultural advantages of the West. Instead, through a discussion of the formation and function of states, he shows how the competing European states, with their semiautonomous social classes and independent church, provided a structure amenable to development and growth.

This does not mean that the European state system was superior to the Chinese. The Chinese state's concern for the welfare and moral education of the public, especially the poor, produced social policies that European states could not even imagine until very recently. Wong notes that since at least 1100, China had been ruled by a bureaucracy "according to rules and regulations created by a policy-making process that limited the arbitrary action of the ruler." And the Chinese state's ability to raise taxes, albeit using very different principles, would have been the envy of any European monarch who had been aware of it. That Europeans were not aware of it helps demonstrate Wong's point that Europe and China developed politically along separate courses until the nineteenth century. Unlike Frank, who sees everything linked in one way or another within the world system of exchange, Wong accepts the relative autonomy of the state from economic forces as well as the ability of those conducting public affairs to make creative decisions.

Pomeranz mounts an even more detailed and complete argument about European and Chinese political economies prior to 1800, demonstrating that they did not differ in ways that would obviously lead one to nineteenth-century domination and the other to decay. Whereas Wong concentrates on how Europe's distinctive political institutions permitted it to take full advantage of the unanticipated energy breakthrough, Pomeranz explains how the Atlantic trading system, as part of a larger world system, helped Europeans achieve substantial advantages. He contends that parts of both China and Europe were experiencing Smithian growth from at least the sixteenth century. But he adds that by the eighteenth century ecological constraints, such as shortages of wood and fiber and declining soil fertility, had begun to push both economies to their limits. Traditional trade practices, such as those followed earlier when Europeans traded silver for Asian porcelain, silk, copper, and gold, could not solve this problem. The solution was a new kind of trade network.

The most important innovation in this process was not new technology or the spread of rational markets, according to Pomeranz, but a combination of entrepreneurship and coercion—especially, though not exclusively, in the Atlantic. Whereas the Qing government (16441911) did not try to protect the sizable Chinese trading posts in East Asia, the Europeans, especially the British, did work to protect and expand their enclaves. Furthermore, the special characteristics of slave economies, in which slaves produced agricultural products for export but not for the sake of purchasing their own food or clothing, helped the British to escape an approaching Malthusian trap in which the available land could not support an expanding population. Essentially, the system traded land-based products, such as sugar and cotton grown in the Caribbean, for manufactured goods produced in England, such as cloth and, later, iron goods, that required very little land.

Pomeranz is not a doomsayer; he does not argue that Europe would have collapsed if this exchange had not happened. Like Wong, he does say that when the coal breakthrough occurred, the British in particular were in a position to take maximum advantage of it. The breakthrough itself, Wong and Pomeranz agree, was as much a product of geographic good luck—the proximity of English coal and iron-ore deposits to each other, as well as the chemical qualities of some of the coal—as of anything else. Pomeranz concludes: "Thus a combination of inventiveness, markets, coercion, and fortunate global conjectures produced a breakthrough in the Atlantic world, while the much earlier spread of what were likely better-functioning markets in east Asia had led instead to an ecological impasse."

Clearly, Pomeranz is a critic of those who emphasize European uniqueness. He does not deny that in some areas, such as that of scientific instruments, Europeans had gained an edge by the eighteenth century. But he makes a persuasive argument that the great breakthrough was not primarily the product of internal European developments, as Lan

WONG AND POMERANZ agree that the coal revolution was the defining moment of the modern world. Before that, Wong believes, Europe and China were growing in similar Smithian ways quite independently, although neither end of the Eurasian continent was necessarily heading toward an industrial breakthrough. Pomeranz, for his part, contends that the distinctive features of the Atlantic system helped the British to cope with Malthusian pressure.

What neither author explores, however, and what a historian like Frank fails even to approach, is the ultimate impact of the European domination that the coal breakthrough brought about. One-sided though approaches like Landes's may be, they have their merits. By attempting to define the uniqueness of the European experience, they implicitly suggest that Europe has left important legacies to today's world. It is difficult to see how widespread contemporary values such as equity (the basis of all human rights concerns) and popular sovereignty (the basis of at least the formal structure of a majority of states in today's world) can be said to have grown equally out of the traditions of Asia and the traditions of Europe. They are not the ideals of a preindustrial Smithian world, even if their roots might be found there.

Everyone admits that the Europeans exploded into the world over the past few hundred years. Wong and Pomeranz show how late the key moments in this process were and how unexpected the coal breakthrough really was. But they do not tell us what happened next: how that sudden European incursion into a Smithian world created an entirely new global situation, and what the most significant aspects of that situation are. This is the next step that world historians need to take. They have provided powerful arguments that are pushing the "European miracle" up to about 1800. It remains to be seen how they will assess the significance of the European domination they all agree eventually occurred.

Gale Stokes is Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of History and dean of humanities at Rice University. A somewhat different, footnoted version of this article appeared as "The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macro-histories" in The American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001): 508525. Used with permission of The American Historical Review.


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